Syria, formally known as the Syrian Arab Republic, like many other countries in the Middle East, calls itself a republic but functions as a monarchy. After Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad died in 2000, the Baath Party nominated his son, Bashar al-Assad, for president. As Glenn Robinson, professor at the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, notes, the Bush Administration’s rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East and transforming Iraq into a free nation is not popular in Syria.
"They don’t want the U.S. occupation of Iraq to go well," he says. "So they’re turning a blind eye to the comings and going on the border between Syria and Iraq. But on the other hand, they don’t want such looseness to get to such levels as to prompt military responses or indeed to rebound negatively within Syria."
To that end, Syria has begun to tighten control of its 600 kilometer-long border with Iraq. U.S. military commanders acknowledge Syria’s efforts, but note there are problems. Syria’s border outposts are poorly equipped and the soldiers manning them often lack basic surveillance equipment.
"The Syrians always like to the use the example of the United States and Mexico," notes Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-American professor of political science at George Washington University and scholar at the Middle East Institute. "The United States is unable to stem the tide of illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico. So how can the Syrians on their own do it?"
Mr. Jouejati says Syria needs to have a stable Iraq, despite what some extremists may think. "But in the overall Syrian national interest, I think Syria has an interest in having a stable Iraq," he says. "It’s not in the Syrian interest to have a civil war in Iraq or a fragmentation of Iraq or further strengthening of Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq. And that is partly why Syria is increasingly cracking down on those elements that infiltrate its border."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Talcott Seelye says that in addition to stepping up border security, Syrians have been helpful in other ways. "For example, they have shared with us information on Al-Qaida," he says, "and they’re in a position to help us on that because the Syrian government had its threats from the Islamic fundamentalists some 20 years ago and effectively took care of it. So they have pretty good information on that. They’ve tipped us off about an imminent attack on our naval facility in Bahrain. Gestures like this have been positive and tend to counter the impression that the Syrians are working against us."
Although Syria has worked with the United States to track Al-Qaida, Talcott Seelye says overall the U.S.-Syrian relationship is somewhat strained. The U.S. State Department includes Syria on its list of countries that are state sponsors of terrorism because of its continued support of Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, groups Syria sees as offering legitimate resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip.
And in May 2004, the U.S. Congress passed the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, which imposes sanctions on Syria until it stops developing chemical and biological weapons, providing safe haven for Palestinian militant groups and occupying Lebanon. Talcott Seelye says the sanctions are mostly symbolic, but still irritating.
"Now these sanctions have little effect on Syria because the only important American firms operating in Syria are oil companies, which are exempted," he says. "But from a Syrian standpoint I would say the Syrians are not happy, of course, with the sanctions. They certainly have declared several times that they desire to have good relations with the United States."
While the United States has made clear that it appreciates Syria’s cooperation against Al-Qaida and its efforts to tighten its border with Iraq, analysts say it’s unlikely U.S. Syrian relations will improve any further given the close U.S.-Israeli alliance, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq.